Reflections from selecting for a Clinical Psychology Course

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Reflections from selecting for a Clinical Psychology Course

Post by maven »

I've been sent the following reflections on selection from someone involved in a clinical training course. It is supposed to be for Aspire, but I thought I'd put it up here as a sneak preview...

The selection process

Having had some input into the selection process I though I would shed a bit of light on the subject as it seems that there is a lot of mythunderstanding (sorry I just made that word up) and confusion on the forum about it at the moment.

Short listing

Let’s just say your course receives 400 applications and wants to interview about 60-80 people for about 15-20 places. First of all, the course staff of a couple of admins and a handful of part-time lecturers, who also work as clinical psychologists in the surrounding trusts, is not large enough to attempt this task even if they had nothing else to do at this time of year. So they enlist the help of other busy clinical psychologists from the local area to come in for an odd day in Feb/March to look at a pile of forms and a week to sit on interview panels. The panels will be made up of course staff and local clinical psychologists. After the course admins do a first sift to filter out people who don’t even have the basic requirements it’s time for serious short listing to begin. Of course each course will do things differently but my experience is that short listing basically involves being holed up alone in an office at the uni for a day with a pile of maybe 80 forms, free access to tea and coffee, some guidelines and a healthy dose of clinical judgement. Each set of forms is rated separately by three or four different people and some sort of average score given to each form and there will be some checks made to ensure some degree of consistency but with the numbers of forms at this stage it is an unwieldy and complex process. Because short listing has to be done by a large disparate team under considerable time pressure there is not really the opportunity to generate useful feedback for individual applicants at this stage.

So what do the short listers do? There are no easy ways to quantify ability or experience, but we all know a first is greater than a 2:1 and a Masters is greater than a BSc, so to some extent you can give each a numerical value and create a meaningful total for academic achievement. And within the applications that meet the minimum criteria you would expect to see some kind of normal distribution from people with just a straight degree, maybe a 2:2 or a 2:1 through to people with firsts plus Masters plus PhDs. But that is only one aspect and you would also be looking at relevant experience. This is very hard to quantify, but again we know that 6 months in a paid AP post is greater than an hour a week for the last 6 months volunteering for the Samaritans so we can start to build a scale of experience. But that is still not the whole picture because there is such a vast difference in the way people describe their experience. The form is now cunningly designed to get you to be extremely concise about what you have done and then gives you a special space to reflect on it. If you use that space to merely list a lot of tasks you have done in each job then my eyes will glaze over and I will think you have learnt nothing from your job and will learn nothing from training – harsh but true. Ultimately it comes down to a balance between academic record and relevant experience, so someone with a good degree, with or without further study and a couple of AP posts (or similar) well reflected on will do well, whereas someone with a glowing academic record but little experience will not, and vice versa. Out of any random pile of forms at this stage there will be roughly a quarter that have an outstanding all round application, about half who are pretty good all round or outstanding in academic or clinical, and a further quarter who are distinctly lacking in some or all areas. It’s a competitive field and the competition is hot. I don’t think this makes the process unfair, just challenging.

Of course if there are mitigating circumstances or other points raised these are taken into account as far as possible. It is also worth noting that ticking the disability box may guarantee you an interview as long as you have the minimum requirements for the course (not sure if all courses offer this but many NHS trusts do). And a final point, you know, the first person who had “done the world’s biggest bungee jump whilst travelling in South Africa” impressed me slightly, the second one – not so much and by the fifth, you know, I was starting to think “Whatever!”.

Interviews (reflections noted after last year’s interviews)

Obviously I’ve only had experience of one course so I don’t want to be too specific and have tried to make these as generally applicable as possible. One interesting thing to note is that this year many more people than usual were interviewed because of equal ops policies changing, so that people who ticked the disability box and met the basic essential requirements all got interviewed. In fact this meant that people who would not normally have got an interview because they have less experience or were less able to reflect on their experience on paper did get interviews. Overall I welcome this as I have long advocated the need to address the additional difficulties disabled people can face in negotiating this career path. However, it did appear to mean that some people who were nowhere near ready for training were arriving at interviews, being put through a very rigorous process, and clearly destined to fail this time round, which seemed harsh. It made me feel that the advice often given to people early on in their careers to “apply anyway for the experience” may be misguided. It’s a horrible process to go through and all the more horrible if you have virtually no experience to draw on to answer the very testing questions we asked. That’s just my opinion on it really although it does reflect a general feeling among the other interviewers I spoke to.

As a panel we saw about a quarter of the interviewees for the course in question, which amounted to about 20 people over a week. Bearing in mind what we as psychologists know about memory, this represents a very challenging task. The first and last person each day probably made quite an impression (primacy and recency effects – remember?), the men tended to be memorable just for being men, beyond that we really weren’t going to remember specific people without some sort of memory jogger (think: “sparkly jacket, red shoes”, “huge handbag”, “jangly jewellery (all made-up examples)) and indeed such comments did feature in our notes, but not always in a good way! You also need to pay attention to your body language – anxiety does funny things to people and, as psychologists, we can recognise that but the interviewee needs to be self aware and try not to come across as arrogant or downright hostile as a defence against showing a few nerves. If you have had repeated failures at interviews it might be worth going through the cringeworthy process of videoing yourself doing a mock interview to see how you come across – you might be quite shocked!

The panel might be very curious about your transition from pole-dancer to psychologist but not have the scope to ask a question about it. If you have taken an unusual path it might be worth reflecting on this on your form or in the interview if you can. Similarly if it has taken you 8 years to complete your MSc and it’s not actually finished yet – they might want to know about why that is – you’d score more points by being up front about it than waiting for them to mention it and hoping they haven’t noticed! Trust me – they have! While I’m on the subject of forms, spelling and grammar are crucial – “During this post my verbose and wittering commmication skills were developped father.” - just won’t cut it, I’m afraid. Maybe that’s an exaggeration but there were some shockers. Finally on the subject of the form itself, do try to get referees who appreciated your special qualities. A poor reference is likely to be severely detrimental; you’d have to really shine in other ways to compensate for a poor reference.

A big bug bear over the week was people not answering the question they were asked but answering one they’d prepared earlier. Now, I know you have to prepare for an interview of this magnitude, but your preparation needs to leave you flexible enough to listen to the whole question and answer it carefully and appropriately. So if you are asked to design a research project off the cuff to measure the preferences of different therapists for tea, coffee or non-caffeinated beverages, please don’t design a study that measures their overall satisfaction with hot drinks in general! Um, that’s not a real example but I hope you get the picture. Likewise if you are asked about theory, don’t talk about therapy – they are not the same thing.

It’s OK to take time to think of a good example to use to answer a question. The pause can feel horribly uncomfortable but the panel will be fine with you taking a moment and will appreciate your ability not to start garbling incoherently under pressure. It’s also OK to own your strengths and weaknesses, in fact many interviews will ask directly for you to do this. Reflecting on your weaknesses, insecurities and prejudices is actually a good thing to do, as long as you show self awareness and an ability to manage these issues for yourself. What you need to be careful not to do is keep digging if you find yourself in a bit of a hole and end up putting down whole swathes of the population, apparently oblivious to your rampant prejudices! You need to demonstrate some socio-political awareness and political correctness, not for its own sake but because the nature of our job demands that we be as non-judgemental as we can and that we be aware of our own prejudices.

It’s not an easy process and I’m really not giving you the answers here. In order to do what I’ve said you really do need to know your stuff, have worked in the field and have a certain level of maturity and self awareness. If you don’t feel ready, take my advice and don’t put yourself through it. Of course you don’t have to take my advice at all, you can just ignore me. . .

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Content checked by a Team Member on 20/04/2012.
Last modified on 20/04/2012

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